On March 1, three former Ole Miss Kappa Alpha fraternity members posed for a photo with guns in front of a bullet-riddled Emmett Till memorial. The three men in the photo now face a possible Department of Justice investigation.
Till, a 14-year-old civil rights icon, was tortured and murdered in 1955. An all-white, all-male jury acquitted two white men accused of the murder.
The sign that the students posed with, located where Till’s body was recovered.
The photo, which was obtained by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica, shows Ben LeClere, an Ole Miss student, holding a shotgun while standing in front of the bullet-pocked sign. His KA fraternity brother, John Lowe, squats below the sign. A third fraternity member stands on the other side with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. The photo appears to have been taken at night, with lights from a vehicle shining on the three.
Though a complaint about the post was filed to the university in March, no comment was made about the post until Jerry Mitchell with the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting broke the story on Till’s birthday in late July.
University spokesman Rod Guajardo acknowledged that an Ole Miss official had received a copy of the Instagram picture in March. The university referred the matter to the university police department, which in turn gave it to the FBI.
Guajardo said the FBI told police it would not further investigate the incident because the photo did not pose a specific threat.
In a response to the story, Guajardo said that while the university considered the picture “offensive,” the image did not present a violation of the university’s code of conduct. He noted the incident depicted in the photo occurred off campus and was not part of a university-affiliated event.
Interim Chancellor Larry Sparks released a statement the day after the story was published, saying the students did not represent the university.
Sparks reiterated that the incident occurred off campus, was not a part of a university-affiliated event and that the university has limits on its tools to remedy the “offensive behavior.”
Four days after the story was originally published, Sparks said in an updated statement that the university’s investigation into the incident was not complete. The university mishandled the investigation, he said.
“Given that we first learned about this incident in March, the university launched an internal review last week of our handling of the incident report about the photo, and we discovered a breakdown in communications between units on our campus,” Sparks said in the statement.
On March 6, the university’s Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT) notified UPD, the Dean of Students, the Office of Conflict Resolution and Student Conduct and Fraternal Leadership & Learning of the post, Sparks said. UPD sent the allegations to the FBI.
On March 20, BIRT requested an update from UPD on the status of the FBI inquiry. It was not until April 2 that the FBI responded to UPD, saying the photo did not represent a specific threat.
“Because of a lapse in communication, several units on campus did not learn from UPD about the FBI’s decision,” Sparks’s statement said. “In addition, BIRT did not confirm the final status of the referral to the FBI. At this time, the BIRT process has not concluded.”
Sparks said that university staff members involved in the investigation “demonstrated an ongoing commitment to deal with this matter seriously,” and that the university is continuing its review of its process to govern racist student behavior in the future.
A university spokesperson would not comment on whether suspension or expulsion were possible outcomes of the investigation.
The Daily Mississippian emailed Assistant Vice Chancellor for Diversity Shawnboda Mead on August 8 requesting an interview to further understand the BIRT process. A university spokesperson responded to the request, saying that “Shawnboda would like to respectfully decline an interview.”
The KA chapter at Ole Miss suspended the three men in the photo after being asked for comment by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica.
LeClere posted the picture on Lowe’s birthday on March 1 with the message “one of Memphis’s finest and the worst influence I’ve ever met.”
Two hundred forty seven people liked the post originally. One of those who liked the photo said in an Instagram direct message, “I just liked the picture because it was a birthday post. Had 0 clue who [Emmett Till] even was until all of this happened,” according to Mitchell’s reporting.
In a joint statement released on July 26, the Black Student Union and Associated Student Body released a statement saying they expect the university, within 90 days, “to hold all members of the UM community accountable to the UM Creed by implementing it as an actionable plan and aligning it when situations arise.”